“We've seen strong post-recession job growth here,” said John Stafford, director of IPFW's Community Research Institute. “This is our third or fourth affirmation that, post recession, our job growth has been better than other metro areas.”
Overall, Fort Wayne rose to No. 59 in the group's “Best-Performing Cities” index, improving by 68 spots from its previous ranking of No. 127. The index is based on growth in jobs, wages and high-tech industries.
Fort Wayne's metro area includes Allen, Whitley and Wells counties. Its No. 59 ranking puts it eight spots behind the Indianapolis-Carmel area, which came in at No. 51.
In 2011, employers in the Fort Wayne metro area added 2,474 jobs, driven largely by the General Motors plant, according to data compiled by the Community Research Institute.
The GM plant added a third shift in 2011, boosting its workforce by about 1,000 workers, Stafford said. Those gains were even more significant because the plant exports almost all its product outside the Fort Wayne area, infusing new money into the local economy.
“Clearly, GM bringing that third line in here was significant,” Stafford said. “Having an employer who exports almost all their products outside the county show such job growth is a huge deal.”
Food service, health and hospitality were among the strongest industries over the yearlong period, Stafford said, adding that job gains tend to come in lots of small chunks, not just massive expansions.
The Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership compiles an annual report on job gains and losses based on the data. The 2012 report is not available yet, said Courtney Tritch, a spokeswoman for the partnership.
While the higher ranking is a good sign, it comes with a couple of caveats, Stafford said.
For one thing, the upward job-creation trend appears to have halted or at least slowed over the past two months, according to unemployment figures. Unemployment in Allen County, which was at 6.8 percent in October, increased to 7.4 percent in November and 7.9 percent in December. Unemployment has also increased two months in a row in Wells and Whitley counties.
And despite the Fort Wayne area's robust job-creation from 2011 to 2012, its per capita income – a thorn in the area's side since at least the early 1990s – continued to lag behind the state and national average.
In the Milken Institute's index, Fort Wayne's wage growth was ranked just 71st among metro areas between 2009 and 2010. The area's per capita income in 2011 was $35,042, compared with $35,689 statewide and $41,560 in the U.S., according to the Community Research Institute.